Last revised: January 6, 2020
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SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
RoCa: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-42
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In one of church historian Phyllis Tickle‘s (1934-2015) last major presentations (May 16, 2013 at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN — it’s worth $10 to download the podcast), she named four “hot spots” that Emergence Christianity (her name for what I am calling a “New Reformation”) must address:
- The substitutionary doctrine of atonement that has dominated the church’s teachings in the age of Protestantism.
- Universalism — how do we proclaim Christ as the way to salvation in an age of secularism and religious pluralism?
- Sola Scriptura is dead as a doctrine of authority in the church in the current Protestantism’s sense of “inerrancy.”
- Imago Dei — it is crucial in this age of scientific discovery to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
I believe that Mimetic Theory can help us reformulate all our positions for these four “hot spots,” primarily because it offers a Christo-centric answer to the fourth one, that of Imago Dei. MT is a full-blown anthropology that proposes Christ’s Way of salvation as nothing less than an new way to be human.
But the first and strongest indication of MT’s value within church circles has come from its clear reframing of the atonement doctrine — in ways that reveal substitutionary atonement as an undoing of the subversion of sacrifice which the Passion makes possible. Jesus the Messiah came to divest human beings from its slavery to the “Sin of the world” — namely, having our civilizations founded and upheld upon religions of sacred violence, thinks like slaughtering a lamb on an altar of sacrifice. Today’s Gospel Reading provides an ideal opportunity to broach this topic. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Mimetic Theory offers a reading of the Passion for which it can be understood as the undoing of substitutionary atonement. See much more below under the John 1 text.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; contains a wholistic reading of 1 Corinthians in the section “The Pauline Ecclesial Hypostasis,” pp. 175-177. Alison twice references the following essay:
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, “A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivalry, Mimesis and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence,” Semeia 33 (1985), pp. 65-81. A feature that Hamerton-Kelly lifts up is the fact that Corinth was a center of the Dionysian cult, an important foil for Girard — first in Violence and the Sacred, but also later in his treatment of Nietzsche (many places).
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #3. Here is a section of Bailie’s reflections on these verses (my notes / transcription off the tape):
***** Bailie on John 1:29-41 *****
The next day John points the disciples to Jesus: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “Lamb of God” is a sacrificial reference. We often misread it because we don’t realize who is demanding a sacrifice in the passion story and in this gospel.A sacrificial reading would be: ‘God is in his heaven, and he demands that someone pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off.’ That’s the sacrificial reading, and therefore he’s the “Lamb of God.”
The non-sacrificial reading of John’s Gospel: Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes from the Father and returns to the Father; he is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is humanity’s sacrificial predilections that are being exposed and deconstructed in the passion story, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say God wanted that sacrifice. This is the Lamb of God: not the lamb of the human community given to God, but the Lamb of God given to the sacrificial human community.
“takes away the sin of the world.” Gr: hamartia means missing the point, misrecognition. Gr cosmos means the human order. What is sin? The misrecognition at the heart of the human order, i.e., the victim. We have all empathy for the victim extinguished under the sacrificial order. The fate of the victim gives the sacrificial order its power. That order depends on our missing the point, on our misrecognizing the victim as victim.
John the Baptist says: I saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven and “abide” in him. “Abide” is a very important word in John. It means being coherent. In this gospel Jesus says, ‘I abide in the Father, and if I were you, I’d abide in me, so that you would come to abide in the Father. Wait ’til we take away the temple, and you’re going to find out how difficult it is to abide!’
Next day, John again points out Jesus and two disciples follow. Jesus says, What do you want?” The disciples respond, “Where do you abide?” That is to say, “What makes you real?” Abiding is so essential. St. Paul says, ‘I live in Christ, and he lives in me.’ The Johannine Jesus says, I abide in the Father and the Father in me.’ But we live in a world that says, ‘I cannot abide.’ That’s our problem.
***** End of Bailie Excerpt *****
2. Gil Bailie, “At Cross Purposes” audio tape series, tape #3, reflects on “the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world.” Here is a section of Bailie’s reflections on these verses (my notes / transcription off the tape):
***** Gil Bailie on the “Lamb of God” *****
Girard’s anthropology from a eucharistic perspective — beginning with the second act of consecration: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”The relationship between the shedding of Christ’s blood and our being saved is the soteriological question. We have always understood that we are forgiven by the blood of Christ — which has led to some strange theology. This is still the question for today. We have books on it, and doctrines. We think we have it settled. We don’t. Theologians are still working at explaining how the blood of Christ forgives our sins.
Atonement theory: God was angry at our sins and ready to punish us for them. Somebody had to take the rap. In a strange, sort-of-gymnastic move, God became human in order to take the rap himself. Or that the Son took it for God, and for us.
The Jews have a point when they say this looks like reversing the Abrahamic move. Abraham moved from the sacrifice of his son to something less troubling. They say, ‘You Christians look like you’re going in the other direction: you see God sacrificing his Son.’
The problem for this atonement theory is that it leaves in place a vengeful God who demands that someone be punished for sin. This is not a God who conforms to the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection. We have to begin from the revelation in Christ and then go back and reckon with our understanding of God. The question remains: how can Jesus’s blood have brought about our forgiveness.
Let’s talk about it in terms of sins — understanding Sin. John 1:29 — John the Baptist points to Jesus coming and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” “Lamb of God” is the NT way of talking about the scapegoat, with a couple of different nuances. Scapegoat means a smelly he-goat — belligerent, and so on — in other words, the sort of creature you want to kick out. “Lamb of God” brings out the innocence. And being “of God” can help bring out the reverse sacrificial direction. Who is it that demands the sacrifice? Is it God? Is it God who has his fist in the air, shouting, “Crucify him!”? Who demands that Jesus die? The crowd. The mob. Us. God only asks that he remain faithful through it all. How does the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world?
At my church, we lift the elements and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John 1:29 has the singular “sin,” “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It may seem a quibble, but I think it takes us interesting question: which is it, the “Sin” of the world, or the “sins” of the world [writing the two on an easel pad]. If Jesus’ death took away the sins of the world, it’s not altogether obvious, if you look around. He does make possible the forgiveness of sins. But it raises a question about taking away: “sins” or “Sin”?
All archaic religions existed to take away the sins of the world. How did they do it? Every once in a while they dumped all these sins on someone and ran them out, or strung them up — and felt righteous about it. Once again, you have this connection between myth and gospel. The gospel says, “He died to take away the sins of the world.” And myth says, “We took away the sins of the world when that one died.” So all religion exists to take away the sins of the world. The question is whether or not the cross is a different way. The old way is to load up all the sins on the scapegoat and run them out of town.
What are “sins”? All the things that spin out of envy, rivalry, jealousy, pettiness, covetousness, greed, hatred — all the things that spin out of mimetic desire. We get in mimetic entanglements. [Draws picture of a swirling vortex.] It’s the stuff of everyday life, creating the worlds we live in. It’s its own reality.
At a certain point in the vortex, accusations arise and begin to focus. More and more people get drawn into the accusations, polarizing folks against a scapegoat. “Conviction” means you take a convict. Swirling down to the center of the vortex, something magical happens. The miracle is that when all of those sins polarize and designates the one on whom to blame it all, it’s all turned into righteous rectitude, without anyone ever feeling the first moral misgivings. It’s the little machine for turning sinfulness into righteousness, without anyone having to realize his or her own sin.
We’re ready for defining the distinction: “sins” of the world are all those little things swirling into the vortex. The machine itself is the “Sin” of the world. It’s the thing which makes all cultural worlds possible. We look back and it all has a rosy glow. We see “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Jesus comes to take away the Sin of the world.
What does the God who’s trying to call us out of all that do? He has a rendezvous with us at the center of that vortex, and says to the satanic powers, “O.K., try it one more time.” (End of tape #3.)
***** End of Bailie excerpt #2 *****
3. At stake with understanding “Lamb of God” from the perspective of mimetic theory is the traditional doctrine of atonement. For more on this subject, see “My Core Convictions,” Part IV.3.1, and especially the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 20, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from January 20, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Lamb of God“; and in 2014, “1960 What?“; John Davies, a sermon in 2017, “Strange Fruit: The Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World.”
1. In 2011 my sermon was titled “Behold the Lamb of God Changing History.” The premise that the Lamb being slain changes history raises many questions, so I added a FAQ to anticipate some of those questions.
2. In 1996 I took a cue from Bailie’s rendering of the disciples question — “What makes you real?” — and turned it into the 60’s greeting, “Where you at, man?” (Link to the sermon “Where’re you at?“) The question seeks to get at where we spiritually abide. Where is that? Consumerism? In recent years I have been influenced a great deal by the PBS video on “Affluenza.” How far does advertising penetrate into our abode? Is that where we’re at?
3. Another good illustration on this theme is one that Bailie uses on the above tape. It’s Cervantes’ description of Don Quixote (which I use in the above sermon):
You must know that when our gentleman had nothing to do, which was almost all the year round, he passed his time reading books of knight errantry. He grew so strangely besotted with these amusements, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of that kind. He gave himself up so wholly to reading romances that at nights he would pour on until it was day, and at day he would read on until it was night; and thus by sleeping little and reading much, the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, tournaments, and abundance of stuff and impossibility. He gave himself up so wholly … that … the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, etc.”
What does this remind you of? Your kids or grandkids playing Nintendo? Watching football on New Year’s weekend?
In 2002 I used this quote as a jumping off point for anthropological reflections on culture. Cervantes, living shortly after the printing press was invented, was at a change-point in which books were becoming a more popular medium for transmitting culture; we live in a time at which the invention of electronic media for culture are becoming dominant — with similar results?
But even more important than the media of culture is the content of culture. I go on to reflect on culture as providing experiences of catharsis. Link to the 2002 sermon “Where Are You Abiding?”
4. The notion of in-dwelling is very important to the Girardian psychology. Essentially, its central thesis is that all of us have our model/rivals in-dwelling in us all the time. It is the natural state of our psyches to be possessed by all those others whose desires shape our desires. A healthy psyche does not mean being exorcized of all those Others, for that is impossible. It means being possessed, first of all, by relatively few Others; but, even more importantly, being possessed by The Other who gives life, God. St. Paul doesn’t talk in terms of being exorcized of all Others; he talks in terms of being possessed by Christ. Likewise, John’s Jesus is possessed by the Father, and Jesus’ disciples may then benefit, too, if Jesus dwells in them and they in him.
The state of modern psychology is that we have given up such in-dwelling of Christ, thinking ourselves able to be autonomous (that is, free of all others), only to find ourselves invaded by a whole legion of others. Where we are successful in ridding ourselves of one spirit, seven more take its place.
In-dwelling is also very much a cultural phenomenon. Culture comes to dwell in us and we in it. Essentially, the basic insight of mimetic theory is that the central medium or conduit for culture is one another. Electronic media are so powerful because they transmit the desires of others in multi-sensory form. I can have another’s desire transmitted to me from across time and space. This is what is truly making for a global village. In Christ, we want to talk about a “communion of saints.”
5. The theme of in-dwelling in the Gospel of John is developed through the word meno, of which the most distinctive rendering in English has been abide. We encounter that word in John 1:29-42 five times in four verses. Taking the NRSV translation and changing meno to consistently read abide, we get the following renderings:
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abided on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and abide is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ (John 1:32-32)When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you abiding?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. (John 1:38-39)
I think it is important to see these linkages to what comes later, namely, Jesus’ teaching that he abides in the Father and the Father in him. And we as his disciples are then invited to abide in him and he in us. This passage introduces us to these themes by showing us how the Father’s Spirit comes to abide in Jesus at his baptism.
And then John uses one of his puns to introduce discipleship as abiding in Christ and he in us. The first disciples ask where Jesus is abiding, to which he responds, “Come and see.” The pun is that the disciples follow him to his current abode and see where it is. But Jesus’ invitation is much more far-reaching than that. The Son of Man has no permanent earthly abode to show people. It doesn’t really matter where Jesus was abiding that night. What truly matters is the disciples coming along with him to see his true abiding, that of the Father in him and he in the Father. We are invited to come along, too, and see about this very important matter of abiding in John’s Gospel.
Link to an extended listing of all the places in the Johannine tradition in which meno is used, a word-study of abiding in the gospel and letters of John.